Perspectives 03.15.2019

Game Day: Changing the Building Code

By Kimberly Seigel and Dalton Ho

When a co-leader of our Material Performance Lab invited us to join her to testify at a building code hearing in front of the California Building Standards Commission, we never would have thought that it would have anything in common with attending a big sporting event, like a homecoming game or NFL playoffs. Like many of us in the building industry, when thinking of building codes, we think of large volumes of dry and sometimes hard-to-decipher text that often sit on a dusty shelf. What we don’t associate with building codes is diametrical opposition, referees in the form of Building Commissioners, and nerve-wracking time limits.

This code change would permit the use of plastic foam insulation without added flame-retardants to be installed below grade when encapsulated fully underneath the slab. On the surface, this code update appeared minuscule and relevant to very few real-world scenarios. However, we soon learned that the influence of this update would be anything but small. It would allow the use of a flame-retardant free plastic foam insulation as a building envelope product for the first time in North America. The magnitude of this decision also explains why there were so many attendees at the hearing, both in support of and opposition to the proposed code change.

Supporting this code update was a chance for us to advocate for change to ensure all buildings foster the health and wellness of occupants. Eliminating unnecessary flame-retardants from building materials is a topic that we have been involved with since 2012, when we first released Transparency.

 

For more info, please see this Peer Reviewed Study, “Flame retardants in building insulation: a case for re-evaluating building codes.”

GAME DAY

The Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI), a group that has been working on reducing flame-retardants in the built environment for decades, spearheaded this code change effort and convened a group of experts with different perspectives to speak in support of the proposed code change. GSPI was like our coach for the big game. 

Hearing day arrived on January 16, 2019, and with several other code updates under consideration by the California Building Commission, our proposal was slated for near the end of the agenda in the late afternoon. The schedule meant there was a real possibility that there would be insufficient time and we might not get a chance to make our case for several more months. Our “sporting event” had a time limit and the suspense was palpable. 

After the code update was presented by the California Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Commissioners opened the floor to public comment. Like a coach with a playbook, GSPI had coordinated a tactical approach. They encouraged each member of the proponent team to give succinct, objective, and science-based statements. The team lineup was organized by industry. Fire scientists spoke to the technical merits of removing flame-retardants. Government agencies focused on reducing toxic materials through regulation. Politicians gave their support and spoke of the disinformation campaigns led by chemical industry lobbyists. Perkins and Will and several other organizations, ranging from design firms, developers, and non-profit groups spoke in support of reducing the toxicity of our buildings.

After the proponents’ 20-member team testified in support of the code change, it was time for the opposition to get in the action. The opposition’s six-member team included chemical industry lobbyists and various insulation manufacturers. Their game plan proved slightly different: confuse the science, throw in red herrings – the dangers of transporting untreated products, mislabeled products, and unsafe production conditions – and speak to the additional costs the manufacturers would have to bear. Their ultimate strategy relied on confusion and fear to stall the code update.

Once the opposition had completed their testimony, the phone lines were opened. Proponent team members who had been on the sidelines (due to being remote), now had a chance to get in the game. Recruited by GSPI, these experts had listened to the entire hearing; they corrected misinformation and provided additional input. Up against the clock, hearts raced during the final testimony.

The most valuable player was Jay Fleming, Deputy Fire Chief of Boston. Joining by phone, he provided heartfelt testimony describing his experience witnessing several of his retired colleagues suffer from lethal cancers associated with the toxic and carcinogenic products they had been exposed to during building fires. While he acknowledged the tragedies occurring in the line of action, none was more distressing to him than the cancers caused by toxic chemical exposure.

The clock was ticking down, and the Commission (aka “the referees”) called for an immediate vote. The seven commissioners approved the proposed code change unanimously, and victory never tasted so sweet!

LOOKING TOWARD THE NEXT GAME

Our hope is to build on this win, pass similar language and continue to push for updates to the International Residential Code (IRC) and International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).

Before this hearing neither of us had considered the years of research, months of preparation, and hours of testimony that form the code that shapes each and every building we live, work, and play in. Our day at the state capital reminded us that when a group of well-organized, informed people come together it is possible to make a real difference. This testimony was also a good reminder that in order to make a change we have to show up, be relentless in our commitment, and never consider something too small to spur meaningful change.

Which is all to say, the view is not that great from the bleachers… we would rather be in the game.